MAGNA — One of the best traits of children is their imagination; the make believe games of young children embody their creativity and innocence. That is why I think Alice in Wonderland Jr. at the Empress Theatre was such a nice experience. It wasn’t the flashiest show I’ll see this year, but it was a good example of a play that was a good match for the theatre company and the cast. The fantastical setting, characters, and action were well suited for the child actors and their stage in life.
Alice in Wonderland—based on Disney the movie of the same name, which is in turn based on two Lewis Carroll novels—tells the story of Alice, who follows the white rabbit into Wonderland, a place where reality seems different and events don’t follow the “normal” ways of the real world. Alice moves from one adventure to the next, but eventually learns that she wants to return home and that Wonderland has its drawbacks. Like other Disney Jr. adaptations, Alice in Wonderland Jr. is a shortened version of the animated movie. David Simpatico’s script runs just over an hour, which is very manageable for young audience members and young performers. On the other hand, Alice in Wonderland Jr. (like Mulan and Aladdin), annoyingly relies on narrators to move the story along, quickly deliver exposition, and condense the action.
In the title role were three performers: Sasha Nutger, Mikayla Devries, and Samuel Birge, with Nutger being the Alice with the most stage time. Nutger had a nice stage presence and interacted well with her cast mates. However, Birge got the most laughs because of how hilarious he looked in an Alice costume. Reeve Sikalis was menacing as the Queen of Hearts from her very first entrance, which made her the best antagonist in the show. Her song “Simon Says” was one of the best songs of the second act because of the energy she brought to the music. But my favorite actor in the cast was Thomas Rowe, who played the White Rabbit. Rowe was excited in all of his scenes and delivered his lines meaningfully every time. On the other hand, some of the child performers did not pronounce their lines or sing their lyrics clearly. I would have liked to understand more of the action happening on stage, so I hope that in future performances the kids will make sure that they are enunciating every word.
The tone of the production was set by director Andrea K. Fife, who created a playful opening number and then effectively managed the cast of 72 young performers in the odd thrust space of the Empress Theatre. Fife also built character into her young cast’s performers, especially in “The Golden Afternoon” and “The Unbirthday Song.” Fife also choreographed the production, and presented simple, but fun and doable, dances for songs like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “The Golden Afternoon.” Despite the short rehearsal time (three weeks), the child performers all knew their choreography and performed it with more enthusiasm than some adult casts that I’ve seen on stage this year.
Finally, it is important to recognize the technical aspects of the production. Like other productions at the Empress, the costumes (from six credited costumers) were better than what I usually see in amateur productions. Especially nice were the White Rabbit’s costume and the Red Queen’s dress, both of which were contributed greatly to the actors’ performance. The Cheshire cat eye-catching costumes—shiny purple and black ensembles—were unlike anything else on the stage. On the other hand, there were two flicking lights that were distracting during the scene changes.
But what matters most in Alice in Wonderland Jr. is the experience that the child performers had in presenting the play. I get the feeling that this production built confidence and an appreciation for teamwork in the actors. Most of them probably won’t go on to become professional theatre artists; but the Empress Theatre has nevertheless successfully taught some valuable life lessons to its youngest performers.